While it’s never just another fixture on the calendar, a few weeks ago, this Saturday’s El Clasico seemed nothing more than another temperamental derby between two colossi, and a precursor to a potential encounter in the Champions League final. However, now that Real Madrid’s one-time ten-point league lead has shrunk to a measly four points, the classic encounter has regained its title contending importance once again. A Barcelona win on Saturday sets up an incredible ending to La Liga, with four games remaining, and a considerably harder fixture list for Madrid’s royal whites.
As if this weren’t reason enough to put the rest of your life on hold for a couple of hours, here are two more reasons to watch the mouth-watering encounter.
Guardiola & Mourinho: a contrast in leadership
One needn’t look any further than Barcelona and Real Madrid to find two teams that so accurately reflect the personalities of their managers. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are arguably the best managers in world soccer, but their methods couldn’t possibly be any more different.
When Barcelona president Joan Laporta promoted the mild-mannered Pep Guardiola from the B squad to replace Frank Rijkaard at the end of the 2007-2008 season, he did so because the Catalan manager is the personification of everything FC Barcelona.
Raised by Johan Cruyff’s tiki-taka style of play at La Masia (the club’s youth academy), and having played for the Dutchman’s European Cup winning dream team, it is only natural that Guardiola has implemented the system at the club’s senior level. Since taking the helm, Guardiola has made La Masia graduates (the likes of Messi, Iniesta, and Xavi) the foundation of his squad. By doing so he has ensured that most of his players are versed in the philosophy of the club, and have remained relatively free of outside (tactical) influences. In effect, the players’ familiarity with the system practically does away with the adaptation period most teams have to deal with, and more importantly, it all but guarantees that future La Masia graduates will know what is expected of them as soon as they’re introduced to the senior squad. This is why it is so common to see new faces sitting on the Barcelona bench who have seemingly come out of nowhere (think Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello). Guardiola’s demeanor has also been very influential off the field. Unlike his counterpart at Real Madrid, Pep, as he’s affectionately known, has always exercised a calm and reserved leadership. This approach is especially evident when he deals with the media, which often attempts to bait him into a war of words with his Portuguese rival. The very deliberate avoidance of controversy is clearly a part of the bedrock that allows Barcelona to thrive. The players have bought into it, and as a result the problems that afflicted Rijkaard’s tenure quickly disappeared after his departure, as did the players that put their egos ahead of the club’s success.
Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid is the antithesis of Barcelona. Instead of depending on the fruits of a well-established youth system, Spain’s biggest club has tried to build its success by acquiring new, expensive, and mostly foreign talent. Unfortunately, though, while Real Madrid has bullied pretty much everyone in football, the club has remained in the shadow of its nemesis. Apart from last year’s success in the Copa d’el Rey, Barcelona has proved an insurmountable obstacle in the La Liga, as well as the Champions League.
This inauspicious reality is certainly not lost on Mourinho. Like the club he leads, the Portuguese manager has pretty much had his way with everyone in club football, except the Catalan giants. Save his defeat of the Blaugrana in the Champions League with Inter in 2010, and last year’s cup success, Guardiola’s team has caused Mou more than a few sleepless nights. Nevertheless, this year could have a different ending in store. Nobody in football has proved more adept at building winning teams in a short amount of time. At Porto, Chelsea, Inter, and now Real Madrid, Mourinho managed to piece together disciplined and determined teams that take on his fiery, “me against the world” mentality. His ability to get the most out of his players has enabled the self-proclaimed Special One to become arguably the best manager in the game, as well as its most polarizing. Where Guardiola avoids conflict, Mourinho relishes it. In fact, Mourinho is very often the instigator, which only feeds the media frenzy that usually revolves around Los Blancos. Mourinho’s provocations have won him a many detractors, who accuse him of doing nothing more than steal the limelight from others. Their accusations are warranted, but many fail to recognize that in doing so, Mourinho is deflecting the attention from his players, who are consequently left relatively unburdened by the media, and in turn regard their prickly leader as a paternal figure they’ll hunker down in the trenches for.
Lionel Messi & Crisitiano Ronaldo: the soccer gods
There are very few topics in the world of soccer that are as divisive as the Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo debate. Both players have attracted legions of admirers, who usually extol one’s virtues at the expense of the other, and whose sentiments parallel those evoked by El Clasico, itself. And like their respective managers, both players have antithetical personalities that fit their club teams perfectly. Chances are that if you’re a soccer fan, you’ve already dug firmly in one of their camps.
The winner of three consecutive FIFA World Player of the Year awards, the diminutive Messi is widely considered to be the best player on the planet. Such has been his success, that most Argentines have begrudgingly accepted him as the heir-apparent to the symbolic Maradona. Messi is a fitting heir considering their physical similarities, as well as their ability to slip through defenders as if they were mannequins. Only a couple of years ago, Messi was even able to replicate Maradona’s majestic World Cup goal against England in 1986. His very few detractors claim that Messi still has to perform at the highest level for his national team, but there can be no doubt that without him, Barcelona would be a far different team. At only twenty-four, Messi has already broken Barcelona’s all-time goal-scoring record, and this season the club has actually failed to win a single game where Messi has not tallied either a goal, or an assist. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Messi is that despite all the fanfare, he continues to be a modest player who isn’t comfortable with all the attention he’s getting, and who routinely shares his accolades with his teammates. Unfortunately for Real Madrid, Messi’s modesty doesn’t prevent him from lighting up El Clasico, as he appears to save his best performances for the big game. He’s already scored a total of thirteen goals in twelve previous fixtures. One would have to be a fool to bet against Messi increasing his goal tally.
It hasn’t been easy for Ronaldo to live under Messi’s shadow. Even after a fantastic run of form last season, where he broke La Liga’s goal-scoring record – netting forty goals – and scored the game winner in the Copa d’el Rey final, the Portuguese phenom was derided for not being able to turn on the jets consistently against Barcelona. No matter how well Ronaldo does, the vitriol that accompanies his every move would have you believe that he’s the archetypal villain in a world where Messi is the hero. But ask Ronaldo what he thinks about the whole issue and he’ll tell you it’s because he’s rich, good looking, and great at soccer. That type of response is characteristic not only of Ronaldo’s public persona, but also of the way that he plays the game. Armed with an array of skills, speed, and a physique that puts most NFL tight-ends to shame, the Portuguese is the linchpin of Real Madrid’s powerful attack. With five games left in the season, Ronaldo has already broken the goal-scoring record he set last year, which means that he and Messi will each be entering the Nou Camp tied at the top of the pichichi with forty-one goals a piece. Ronaldo’s ability to consistently perform at the highest level, coupled with Real Madrid’s current position at the top of the Spanish league, would have a soccer neophyte scratching his head at the idea that most believe Ronaldo is still not at Messi’s level. Nevertheless, the reality is that Madrid’s number seven must score more often against Barcelona in order to challenge for soccer supremacy.